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Chapter 29: Prayer: The Fundamental Category of Christian Action


Prayer begins with listening to God’s revelation. Of the two classic definitions of prayer—a conversation with God, a lifting of the mind and heart to God—the first seems more adequate, because it takes into account not only the human act but God’s reciprocal act. Prayer and the reading of Scripture go together, as the two sides of the same conversation. To a great extent, prayer consists in remembering God’s words and deeds, especially what he has communicated to us in Jesus. At the same time, prayer issues in action; it shapes one’s life in accord with faith.

Scripture insists on the need for prayer; it is as necessary as reception of the Eucharist. For acts of prayer are human acts by which one determines oneself; they build up one’s Christian personality. Any interpersonal relationship depends on mutual understanding, and that requires conversation. So, too, our relationship with God.

In order to pray, Christians need and receive the special help of the Holy Spirit. Although we are God’s adopted children, we are now, as it were, his embryonic children, not yet fully capable of acting by ourselves according to the nature we have from the Father. Thus, the work of the Spirit is required to mediate our relationship with God, supplying what we cannot supply ourselves. The Spirit likewise helps Christians in their entire lives, but this help in no way diminishes their own moral responsibility.

A number of characteristics should mark Christian prayer. It should be centered on Jesus, who is the model and principle of our prayer. It should be done in accord with the Christian modes of response. It should be humble, filled with a spirit of joyous thanks, vigilant and attentive, persevering and confident of the Father’s goodness, sincere and constant.

Jesus tells us, “Ask, and you will receive” (Jn 16.24), yet often we do not receive what we ask for. Part of the explanation concerns the fact that God is not only a loving Father but a wise one: He answers our prayers by giving us what we need, not necessarily what we want. Thus, as Jesus shows, our prayer ought always to be conditional: If it be God’s will . . .. That, however, points to a more fundamental problem: If we ought always to pray that God’s will be done, and God already knows what we need, what is the point of praying? St. Thomas answers that our prayers do not alter God’s will but fulfill it. To this it should be added that, as we cannot attribute ignorance, error, or change of any sort to God, so, too, we cannot attribute to him any sort of comprehensive knowledge and unalterability we can understand. We know that prayer is essential to our interpersonal relationship with God; we err in supposing that we know what God’s knowledge is, and that it is such as to render prayer unnecessary or irrelevant.

Liturgical worship should be the center of each Christian’s prayer life. Other acts of worship by members of the Church are worship in the Church but not worship by the Church. Jesus’ redemptive act is made present to us in the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, and we participate in it there.

Sacramentals and devotions also have a role to play in the Christian’s prayer. Sacramentals are acts somehow related to the sacraments—extensions of the sacraments into daily life. Devotions are specifications of worship, focusing attention on some particular religious truth or truths, and accommodating the diverse needs and vocations of particular individuals and groups.

Personal prayer is required in addition to liturgical prayer, for it shapes one’s unique participation in Jesus’ redemptive act. The liturgy is not adequate by itself for the self-determination of any particular person; private prayer and devotions are necessary in order to personalize for each what is common to all. One’s conformity to the model of Jesus begins in prayer and is completed by putting into practice what one has learned there.